adventures in poetry - a history

It's probably about time to start the long-promised, long-delayed piece on my history with poetry.

One of the reasons it's been so delayed is the tendency to want to be comprehensive and allow in minor detail. This then will be the ruthlessly abbreviated version.

Up until twenty I have no history with poetry to speak of. I had a couple of children's anthologies, we looked at some poems in school, and there were occasional radio programmes. I knew some names, my parents had various anthologies and books by Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Allen Ginsberg, Adrian Mitchell, T S Eliot and Ezra Pound that I remember, and plenty more. The only poetry I remember reading by choice was in the Penguin Voices anthologies that I've mentioned previously on santiago's dead wasp. I read the Voices anthologies mainly for the scary pictures and also for a handful of traditional rhymes and poems that satisfied my need for novelty without being too deep.

Although I had always told stories, and started writing them as soon as I could, I wrote very few poems. At nineteen I moved to London for around nine months to study print and publishing. I was not ready to deal with the city and became very isolated. The majority of my time was spent walking, listening to the radio, reading and writing. I became interested in doing two things with my writing: one was to attempt to break down boundaries between short fiction, non-fiction, poetry and other forms of writing - perhaps even ultimately between other forms of art - so between writing and music or writing and dance, the other idea was to use as minimal a language as possible, to cut out conjunctions and other grammatical items I thought were unnecessary, as well as trying not to rely on familiar associations attached to particular words. It was a challenging set of ideas and led to a lot of poor writing, but it also pushed me more in the direction of poetry where there is more freedom for this kind of approach. At the same time my reading was mainly novels, adult comics and newspapers.

When I was twenty-two, having experimented with a lot of approaches and decided poetry would do for now, I started to submit some of my work to small magazines. I still hadn't read much poetry. Apart from the authors in my parent's collection mentioned earlier I also read Tony Harrison, Byron, Simon Armitage, Wendy Cope, Carol Ann Duffy, Walt Whitman, Blake, Milton, Tom Gunn, Dylan Thomas, R S Thomas and not many more. I was of course advised to read more contemporary writers, which I tried to do. But while I found some interest in some contemporary names most of them were completely uninteresting to me. Despite this I felt I needed to know more about how poetry worked. Between twenty-three and twenty-four I devised myself a primer in the principals of writing poetry. This consisted of reading everything I could find on metre and rhyme, and looking at traditional models, which in my case meant mostly the second generation of Romantics, Byron, Keats and Shelley.

This had both good and bad effects. The good effect was in giving me a basic understanding of the formal principles I would subsequently reject, and providing me in accentual metre with a structural underpinning for most of my poetry of the next ten years. The bad effect was in attempting for a time to write poetry that failed to engage with the contemporary world. My only excuse being that the Romantic poetry I read was more interesting than most of the crap Bloodaxe, Faber and Carcanet were producing. I did receive a clue to a wider world but failed to follow it up when someone gave me copies of books by John Ashbery, Christopher Middleton, and Douglas Oliver. There were interesting things in all of these, but they were also quite difficult, and I was lazy, so they mostly stayed on the shelf.

Just before I was twenty-six I started my first degree. I'd started studying philosophy with the the Open University, but decided when I applied to Cardiff and other universities that I'd like to study English and Philosophy jointly. After a year I dropped philosophy altogether. I studied a range of texts from drama through prose fiction to poetry, doing notably worse in my poetry modules. Except that is in the creative writing elements of the course in the second and third years when I produced poetry, pose and drama, and consistently got my best grades. Had the course been solely creative writing I probably would have got a first rather than the 2:2 I actually managed.

Although I was now happy to engage with the contemporary world I was still reluctant to engage with the contemporary poetry I found in bookshops. I found only a few names worth reading, most notably Tony Harrison and Pascale Petit. There were also two anthologies, of Anglo-Saxon verse and of French Poetry between 1820-1950 that I constantly returned to. I was far more interested in film and music, both mainstream and increasingly the experimental. My poetry also attempted to be experimental, but without any models on which to base that experimentation other than what I knew from film, music, and from early twentieth century literature. That early twentieth century literature mainly meant Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Beckett, Tristan Tzara, a vague idea about the Beat poets, and a little Gertrude Stein.

I experimented with poems written for more than one voice to read simultaneously, I experimented with poems meant to incorporate non-linguistic sounds, I experimented with the use of pictures and diagrams, and I experimented with collaging material from a variety of sources. I didn't do any of it terribly well, I hadn't yet found performance outlets, I didn't really know anyone I could perform multi-voice pieces with and didn't have the equipment to allow me to do that on my own, but I was moving in the right direction. But since I wasn't doing much reading and still hadn't found the experimental practices I hoped were out there somewhere I had no idea whether my ideas had any validity.

Around thirty I managed to get together a group of friends to form a poetry performance group called Happy Demon, who existed for close to two years. We were never as experimental as I would have liked, and most of my experimentation came out in the way I dressed (or didn't) and in my use of make-up and performance style, which could often be confrontational and camp. Again film and music were the primary influences.

When I moved to Manchester at thirty-two this performance style, along with my limited pool of reading, and sporadic experiments remained pretty much the same for the next five years. My frustration at the lack of availability of any poetry I'd actually want to read grew. But slowly positive changes happened.

In 2004 I had a burst of experimentation in which a number of the pieces advanced ideas I had about chance processes and questioning the role/authority of the author. In 2005/06 I decide to apply for a part time MA in Creative Writing with the intention of improving my writing, reading more poetry, and discovering more about any experimental practices there might be. I also deliberately took a hiatus from writing poetry. It was intended to be from writing in general, but I found I was writing short fiction and scripts as well as making sculture, painting, taking photographs and making short films and pieces of music. What was meant to be a six month break became eighteen months of focussed creativity in a variety of areas. The audio aspect of film making and my music making, as well as the equipment bought to facilitate them, were obviously crucial to a lot of the developments in my poetry more recently. But it was also important that I took a break from writing poetry, which had become very personal and self-focussed. In writing short fiction and drama I was able to shift the focus away from navel-gazing onto other characters and concerns, a lesson I was able to apply when I came back to poetry.

In 2007 I started an MA in Creative Writing at Bolton, and decide that to make the most of the degree I would have to familiarise myself with what was happening in comtemporary poetry. In January 2008 I found myself listlessly wandering round Waterstones in a despairing attempt to find any poetry worth reading that I could spend Christmas book-tokens on. In the end I settled on a selected Ginsberg, a collection of poems by Gerald Stern, which I do like and bought because it looked interesting, and Caroline Bergvall's Fig, which I bought because it didn't look like anything else. I flicked through the Ginsberg, reading Howl and a couple of other pieces in full, I read the Stern book in full, and found interesting things there, and then I picked up Fig.

I should write more fully about Fig another time, but the effect was galvanising. It was everything I'd been looking for. It was an outward looking poetry with an internal integrity, rich with ideas, and which felt inexhaustible. It was accessible but I didn't feel I was close to understanding what was going on. The fact that it incorporated visual elements, that some of the pieces were site specific installation/performance pieces, and that a lot of the work was also intended to be read aloud felt like a vindication of the things I'd hoped poetry could achieve. It placed poetry into a contemporary artistic realm with links to other contemporary art practices, rather than in an eccentric, hermetic corner of some library. Immediately I wanted to know more, and turned to the internet, very quickly finding more work on UbuWeb, with which I was already familiar. As well as Caroline Bergvall's work I found the work of a number of other writers, and a variety of different current approaches to poetry. I also began to think that there were things I might be able to do myself.

In terms of creating my own work I looked initially at visual poetry, joining a forum and finding a few people who interested me. I also quizzed people online and got links to a variety of other sites, becoming aware of a range of visual, minimal and sound practices. My own attempts at visual poetry were not good. But having a microphone, a means of recording sound, and a LoopStation available I decided in March 2008 to give sound poetry a try. Although the initial experiments sound appalling to me now I was encouraged enough by them to carry on, and was able to hear an improvement, and to continue having ideas. The other advantage from my point of view as a bit of an attention-whore is that sound poetry is inherently performable.

Which brings us up to date. Having bought perhaps twenty poetry books between 1992 and 2007 I have now bought and mostly completed over two dozen new poetry books since the beginning of 2008. I have discovered writers I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of before 2008. Perhaps the best thing about this belated discovery is having so much writing to enthuse about instead of having to complain about how shit bookshops and mainstream poetry publishing is. They are and it is still shit, but there are so many other exciting things happening that I'm now aware of, that I no longer have to care about the mainstream. To be honest it's something I'd never really felt about poetry before. Bring on the future.


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